As several post-war generations come of age in Nuevo México, we affectionately use the old saying, “Viejo el viento, pero todavía sopla”—old is the wind, but it keeps on blowing.
This far inland, our hurricane was “Al Hurricane,” also known as Alberto Nelson Sánchez and the godfather of New Mexican music. On October 22, at age eighty-one, he left us behind with a remarkable musical legacy that successfully incorporated the energy of rock ’n’ roll and the creativity of jazz to reconnect us with our Latino Mexicano roots and our heritage language.
The accolades for Al and his music are many, after over sixty years of performing with more than thirty albums, from the 1993 New Mexico Governor’s Award to the 2017 New Mexico Music Commission Platinum Award. Yes, he played with musical luminaries like Fats Domino, Marvin Gaye, and Chuck Berry. Yes, he recorded his debut album on the same equipment that Buddy Holly and Norman Petty used, but the songs were in Spanish.
The curious title song “Mi Saxophone” is a raucous declaration of independence from the kind of public schooling that historically punished children for using Spanish and shamed their culture. The story is simple: a kid discovers a saxophone hidden under the bed, takes it to school, plays it, gets busted by the teacher, and faces corporal punishment from the principal. The kid ridicules and taunts them in Spanish, calling them “chicken and goat face” and “melon head,” names they are unlikely to understand. Ethnomusicologist Peter J. García looks beyond a literal interpretation, questioning what the saxophone might represent on a subliminal level to legions of listeners and fans.
In collaboration with his brothers Amador “Tiny Morrie” and Gabriel “Baby Gaby” and his son Al Jr., Al Hurricane always insisted on “coming back home” to transform the music of our parents—from Mexican rancheras and boleros to the Cuban mambos of Beny Moré and rumba gitana—into a new, bright synthesis that has motivated several generations of hip young Nuevo Mexicanos and Chicanos to sing, dance, and celebrate their culture. The next generation of internationally popular Sánchez performers include Al’s four nieces in their group Sparx and their brother Lorenzo Antonio.
I first became aware of Al Hurricane’s music when I in high school in Albuquerque in the 1960s. In the midst of the British Invasion, it was culturally reaffirming to hear such cool music in Spanish! We listened to some Tex-Mex and rancheras back then, but what became the big bright “Alburqueño” sound with trumpets and sax was definitely ours!
In college I studied Spanish and Latin American literature, culture, and folklore. I came to understand that the roots of our own Spanish canciones, romances y corridos (songs and ballads) have deep roots in Mexico and Spain. The corridos come from a tradition of narrative poetry as old as the Spanish language itself—just over a millennium. At the University of New Mexico, my love of poetry and music made its way into my research and teaching. Students were fascinated to learn that practitioners of these arts are part of our own contemporary cultural scene. They were even more surprised when the big star, Al Hurricane himself, would take time to visit our classes, as have other members of his family over the years.
My friendship with Al began back in 1992, when the Smithsonian opened its landmark American Encounters exhibit at the National Museum of American History and featured New Mexico at the annual Folklife Festival. As part of the project, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released Music of New Mexico: Hispanic Traditions, with Al Hurricane and his group singing a corrido called “Elena y el francés” (Elena and the Frenchman). This ballad was popular during the French Intervention in Mexico in the 1860s and dates even further back into medieval times. How amazing that it could be a radio and jukebox hit and that people were dancing to it in our own century!
Al “Hurricane” Sánchez was the patriarch of an extended family of extraordinary musicians who have been an important part of the Hispanic cultural landscape in New Mexico. As a teacher of literature, folklore, and the cultural history of New Mexico, I thank them for their positive influence on the revitalization of our heritage language and culture.
—Enrique R. Lamadrid
With a military salute, a rosary by Los Penitentes, and loving stories, New Mexico said farewell to music legend Al Hurricane at a memorial service on October 30.
Alberto Nelson Sánchez was born on July 10, 1936, in the village of Dixon in northern New Mexico. The name “Hurricane” was given to him by his mother as a loving reference to him running around and knocking things over. His parents encouraged his musical talents, especially his mother who taught him to sing and play the guitar. Using both Spanish and English lyrics, he built a career blending New Mexican folk music with influences of rancheras, cumbias, rock, jazz, and country.
I was born in 1992, and my first memory of Al Hurricane was seeing him and his band performing in my hometown for Las Fiestas de Las Vegas, New Mexico. To no surprise, he attracted the largest crowd of the entire fiesta. Thousands gathered to shake his hand or even just catch a glimpse. The people adored him, and they knew that “a storm was coming.” When he started singing, the entire audience sang back. The people of Las Vegas knew every word, danced to every song, and felt Al Hurricane’s music in their souls.
Al was an ambassador of our state. He was proud of New Mexican music, and he showcased it beautifully to the world. Through his work, he helped his fellow New Mexicans reaffirm and be proud of their culture. Elsewhere in the world, people might not have known where New Mexico was located, but, thanks to him, they knew what New Mexico sounded like.
Al had a gift, and he used it to bring joy and happiness to so many people. In his memory, let us remember that music is a strong common denominator across borders, languages, and cultures, and we must use our gifts and talents for the betterment of the world.
Enrique R. Lamadrid is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Spanish from the University of New Mexico and a longtime associate of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He has worked as a researcher and presenter for many Smithsonian Folklife Festival programs including the 1992 New Mexico and 2000 El Río programs.
Ashley Martinez is from Las Vegas, New Mexico, and studied religious and international studies at the University of New Mexico. She is a former Folklife intern and participant staff member for the 2017 Folklife Festival and IlluminAsia festival.